Media vultures seize on ‘brutality’ claims

There is no shortage of takers for stories that allege Israeli brutality against Palestinians

By Alex Brummer, July 23, 2009

The relentless media challenge over the conduct of Israel’s January Gaza campaign continues apace. The latest bout of criticism stems from a report by the Israeli-based NGO Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shitka), a group which receives funding from the British, Spanish and Dutch governments, and collects testimony from veterans and serving IDF soldiers.

In its latest dossier, provided first to the Independent on July 15, it charges that Israeli soldiers were repeatedly encouraged to place their own safety above those of Palestinian civilians.

The double page Indy dispatch under the headline “Brutal Truth” accuses the IDF of “the killing of at least two civilians, the vandalism looting and wholesale destruction of Palestinian houses, the use of deadly white phosphorus and taking bellicose religious advice from army rabbis”.

There is no shortage of media takers for this kind of material. The monitoring group Honest Reporting records that the story was picked up by outlets including CNN, the Guardian, Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, Financial Times, The Times and the Telegraph as well as the Toronto Star and Globe & Mail.
The BBC was at the forefront of the coverage. It led the World Service news bulletins on July 16 despite repudiation from Israeli spokesman Mark Regev who observed the report “doesn’t even meet the most basic standards of tabloid journalism”.

A lengthy article on the BBC website by correspondent Paul Wood refers to the “damning testimonies from soldiers who took part in the offensive in January”. Wood argued that in the past such claims have been made by Palestinians and labelled as propaganda now “the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers”.
If these charges against the IDF have a familiar ring we should not be surprised. In March, Israel’s left-leaning newspaper Ha’aretz splashed across its front page several stories purporting to be direct testimony of alleged abuse by Israeli soldiers during Operation Cast Lead. The story was picked up by, among others, the New York Times, which said the IDF had shown “a permissive attitude toward the killing of civilians and reckless destruction of property”.

Unfortunately, for Ha’aretz and the NYT not all the testimony stood up to close scrutiny and both papers subsequently printed follow-ups clarifying the situation. Not surprisingly both titles proved much more cautious about the Breaking the Silence report which found most traction in the British and Canadian press.
One Globe & Mail reporter noted on Twitter: “I’m reading a really moving report which I shall be writing for the Globe and Mail. It makes me feel sick to the stomach.” Such comments, betraying the attitude which a writer brings to an article, suggests that sometimes objectivity is in the eye of the beholder.

It is only right that the IDF takes the Breaking the Silence report seriously. It is investigating, but the task is made more difficult by the fact that the testimony is anonymous, it comes from 30 soldiers — less than 0.005 per cent of IDF forces — and considerable time has passed, so cross-checking is more difficult.
What the report does demonstrate is how easy it is to get the attention of the Western media with allegations of Israel atrocities and potential war crimes. If the coverage were limited to the odd newspaper article it probably would not matter.

But when the BBC and CNN are in on the act, with their global broadcasting and internet reach, it become more serious and threatens to contribute to demonisation of the Jewish state.

Alex Brummer is City Editor

Last updated: 5:17pm, July 23 2009